By Selina Dufner
“Naomi was the first. She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.” – Halston
February is Black History Month and that is the perfect occasion to write about an outstanding and influential, yet kind of forgotten model – Naomi Sims. She is often seen as being the first African American supermodel, while others argue that Donyale Luna is more deserving of the title. Regardless, Sims definitely broke racial barriers in the fashion and beauty industry.
In 1966, she won and accepted a scholarship at the Fashion Institute of Technology located in New York City. After moving there to attend the institute, Sims realised that, in spite of the scholarship, she had to find a way to earn money. She was highly interested in the world of fashion and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a model. The start of her career was rather difficult and she had to face many obstacles, such as dealing with rejections from agencies due to her race and the colour of her skin.
However, Sims never gave up and began to look for a different approach. She stopped contacting agencies but tried to get in touch with fashion photographers with the goal to get booked for a photo shoot. She found a photographer in Gösta Peterson, who worked for The New York Times, and whose wife was the fashion editor for The New York Times as well as its supplement, Fashion of the Times. Sims’ determination paid off and Peterson used her for a photo shoot. In 1967, Sims became the cover girl for the August issue of Fashion of the Times and was the first black model ever to accomplish that. This gave her the confidence and motivation to seek out representation by the top agencies in the industry – Ford Models and Wilhelmina Models. Sadly, she got rejected again. Eileen Ford didn’t even bother to inform Sims personally about the decision and gave the task to her assistant. The reason was that they already had enough models of “her kind.”
Sims got lucky with Wilhelmina Models and they convinced her to agree to the following deal: Sims sent out copies of Fashion of the Times, alongside her contact details, to one hundred advertising agencies; if Sims managed to find work, the company would receive a commission. The plan was successful and the response enormous. Sims was in high demand and simply unstoppable. By 1968, she was earning roughly $1,000 a week. In the same year, she made history once again by gracing the cover of the October issue of Life and the November issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. However, her most famous cover is most likely the August 1973 issue of Cosmopolitan. Sims modelled multiple times for the American fashion designer Halston, was photographed by the legendary Irving Penn for Vogue, was featured on Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview and received two Model of the Year awards – in 1969 and 1970.
Sims succeeded not only as a model but also as a businesswoman. In the early seventies, she founded her own company that focused on creating wigs and beauty products specifically for black women. She is also the author of several books, including: All about health and beauty for the black woman; How to be a top model; All about success for the black woman and All about hair care for the black woman. Sims had to create her own makeup during her time as a model as it was hard to find makeup for her skin tone in those days. Bethann Hardison, an African American activist and model, said that when her career started in the early seventies, “girls knew how to make their own makeup. They learned from Naomi Sims. If the makeup artist didn’t have [their shade], they knew how to mix [foundations] together to get their exact color”.
On August 1st, 2009, Naomi Sims passed away due to breast cancer. Yet, she remains an inspiration and idol to many, and is dearly missed and remembered.
“I am saddened by the passing of the legendary supermodel Naomi Sims, but I take comfort in knowing that she has left us a proud legacy that all of us black supermodels have benefited from” – Iman